After serving three terms in Congress, Santa Barbara’s Salud Carbajal is now feeling frisky. “Finally in this morass of a bureaucracy, things are finally getting done,” he exalted. “I no longer have to ask, ‘Why am I here? Am I just a placeholder here?’”
A lot’s been happening. For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. Senate is now seriously considering a package of nine modest “gun control” measures in response to the mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York. Not only did 10 Republican senators announce they were joining with their Democratic colleagues to support a proposed bill — enough to make it filibuster-proof — but Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell has also just endorsed the idea in concept. Getting top billing in this Senate package is a piece of legislation that Carbajal sponsored.
If passed, this measure would provide an indeterminate amount of grant funding to entice the 31 states that currently do not have “red flag” rules or what’s more formally known as “Extreme Risk Protection Orders.” In the 19 states that have such laws, law enforcement officers, relatives, and, in some instances, even roommates are empowered to petition local judges for restraining orders on individuals who, by word or deed, appear to pose a risk of deadly violence. If the judges agree, law enforcement officers are authorized to take possession of the individual’s firearms for up to a year.
As Carbajal repeatedly noted, this marks the first time in three decades that the Senate has even considered the issue of gun violence. For all his evident giddiness, Carbajal isn’t celebrating anything yet. “Let’s not start counting our chickens,” he advised. “We still have to see this across the finish line.”
Drafting an actual piece of legislation, many have noted, is a far cry from writing a joint press release. The bill — which would also include enhanced background checks, more funding for mental health services, and additional funding for school security programs — hasn’t even been drafted yet. There’s no fine print, Carbajal cautioned, in which legislators can yet become ensnared. And it’s election season, he worried, meaning it wouldn’t take many defections from the measure’s list of supporters to kill the bill.
When it comes to gun violence, the political is personal for Carbajal. When he was a kid growing up in Bagdad, Arizona, his father kept a revolver around the house. When Carbajal was 12 years old, his older sister took that revolver and shot herself, leaving her three kids suddenly without a mother. Though it’s doubtful that a red flag rule would have saved Carbajal’s sister, preliminary research indicates that for every 10-20 firearms impounded with gun violence restraining orders, one suicide is averted in California.
Later, when the Carbajal family moved to California, they settled in a rough patch of Oxnard known as La Colonia. “There was a lot of gun violence going on,” Carbajal recalled. “Gang violence, domestic violence, suicide. There was a lot.”
In the U.S. Marines, Carbajal would get enough firsthand experience shooting M-16 and semi-automatic weapons to conclude they had no business being in the hands of the general population. Even when Carbajal would later move to Santa Barbara — first working for county supervisor Naomi Schwartz and then replacing her when she retired — he would discover that mass shootings happened even in paradise.
In January 2006, former postal worker Jennifer San Marco — caught in a prolonged racist and psychotic spiral — shot and killed her next-door neighbor and then five former coworkers at the Goleta Post Office before shooting herself. None of her six victims, strikingly, were White.
Eight years later, Elliot Rodger would go on his killing spree in Isla Vista, killing six and wounding 14 more after posting lengthy misogynistic diatribes on social media, viciously lamenting his inability to have sex. Gunfire killed half of his victims. With San Marco and Rodger, there was no shortage of warning signs. In fact, Rodger’s mother called sheriff’s deputies shortly before he exploded. There were no red flag laws at the time, no gun violence restraining orders. The deputies did what they could but reported encountering an exceptionally polite and presentable young man. There would have been no cause — or authority — to seize his weapons.
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Eight years later — almost to the day — another deeply disturbed lone gunman would open fire on a crowded elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. “Eight years ago, it was Santa Barbara; today, it’s Uvalde. Tomorrow, it could be kids in another classroom, anywhere in America,” declared Carbajal in the moment. “I pray it does not take another eight years to bring those who claim to be on the side of reducing crime … to their senses.”
It was the Rodger killing spree that inspired California legislators — led by then local representatives Das Williams and Hannah-Beth Jackson — to pass the state’s first red flag bill.
“These laws have been proven to be effective,” declared Carbajal. “They work.”
A study released earlier this year credits California’s law with the prevention of as many as 58 mass shootings during its first three years of implementation. Critics claim the bill denies gun owners both property rights and constitutional rights, not to mention due process. The reality is that all 58 counties implement and enforce the bill differently. Even red flag supporters acknowledge too many people have no idea the law is on the books; many law enforcement agencies aren’t adequately trained in implementation.
Carbajal acknowledged the bill is hardly a panacea. It will not stop gun violence. Or — as the case of John Dungan demonstrates — some people will find a way to kill. Dungan is now on trial for using his black Camaro as a murder weapon on Highway 154, killing a mother and her two children. Shortly before the killing, county mental health workers seized a cache of weapons and ammunition Dungan had buried in his backyard after he’d sent ominous and creepy text messages to an ex-girlfriend. They also had him placed on an involuntary psychiatric hold just so he could never get his guns back. Dungan denies the killing was deliberate, but prosecutors insist otherwise.
That’s where Carbajal’s bill comes in. He’s creating a pot of gold — of deliberately unspecified dimensions — from which state governments and local agencies can draw to cover the cost of training and other expenses attributable to adoption. “I’m not telling anybody to do anything,” Carbajal stated. “I’m trying to remove any obstacles other than political for not doing something. There’s simply no excuse to not work with stakeholders on this.” In this case, he’s hoping to remove any excuses rooted in costs. Carbajal said he’s leaving it up to the Justice Department to determine how much money should be appropriated.
This is hardly the first time Carbajal has introduced red flag legislation. For each of his three terms, he introduced the same bill. His predecessor Lois Capps introduced it in 2015, one year after the Isla Vista massacre. This is the first time, however, that it’s made its way to the Senate. It doesn’t hurt, Carbajal said, that the National Rifle Association has been badly hobbled by a recent corruption scandal that’s left the onetime political powerhouse financially and politically damaged. “But their people are still making the rounds,” he added. “What’s different?” Carbajal asked. “Maybe there’s something in the air. What’s different? I’ll tell you what: Guns are now the leading cause of death for kids.”
Correction: Salud Carbajal used M-16s in the U.S. Marines not AR-15s as stated in an earlier version of this story.